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The 18 – Phoenix Reaches Doorstep of History

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 07/15/19, 11:24AM EDT

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Asante, Jahn continue to make difference, while Hartford gets dream start at Dillon Stadium

It may not have arrived in such emphatic fashion as the victories that came before it, but Phoenix Rising FC moved to the doorstep of history on Saturday night as its 1-0 victory against Rio Grande Valley FC at H-E-B Park earned the club a ninth consecutive victory, one shy of the league record set by FC Cincinnati a season ago.

And while it didn’t feature the tension of the club’s previous outing, where victory was grabbed in stoppage time against the Portland Timbers 2, there were certainly enough nervous moments inflicted on the visitors by the Toros that illustrated how difficult a task they are attempting to complete. On another night Carlos Small’s fine shot eight minutes into the second half would have curved one inch more and caromed into the net off the right post instead of rebounding to safety.

Instead, it was a favorable bounce off another piece of woodwork that ended up deciding the game. Toros goalkeeper Tyler Deric got a solid hand to a headed finish by Adam Jahn off a cross from the right by Solomon Asante to send it off the underside of the crossbar, but the ball dropped to the ground and then rebounded firmly enough to clearly cross the line as it touched the net just over the goal line.

Jahn’s goal was his 10th of the season, while Asante’s helper was his 10th assist, and although the Ghanaian’s individual scoring streak may have ended at seven games, the duo remains prolific game-in and game-out. The last side to hold both Asante and Jahn off the scoresheet was Sacramento Republic FC in the scoreless draw between the clubs on April 27, since which time Jahn and Asante have combined for 17 of their 22 goals this season.

Austin Bold FC is now the side standing between Phoenix and a place alongside Cincinnati in the USL Championship’s Record Book, and with the nice coincidence of the clash arriving this Friday night at Casino Arizona Field, Rising FC is already summoning its $1 Beer Night mojo.

Asante, Jahn and their teammates certainly appear ready to rise to the challenge.

Here’s this week’s 18.

1. Asante missed out on tying Hadji Barry’s Championship record of eight consecutive regular-season games with a goal, but he reached a different landmark in becoming the fastest player to record double-digit goals and assists in a single season with his helper on Jahn’s winner against the Toros. After storming through June to earn its Player of the Month award, Asante continues to produce when his side needs him to most.

2. The Ghanaian isn’t, however, the fastest player to have recorded 10 assists in a season by the calendar. After digging through the archives upon the initial request of Wednesday Night Soccer play-by-play voice Mike Watts, it appears that honor still rests with former Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC midfielder Matt Dallman from his record-setting season in 2013. Dallman recorded his 10th assist of the season on June 23 that campaign, and then added two more in the Hounds’ following game on July 5 to set what was then the Championship’s record of 12 assists in a season.

3. The way Dallman’s season played out following that, however, might be instructive as to any thoughts that Asante might have of becoming the first player to reach 20 assists in a Championship season; after recording his 12th assist, the assists dried up for Dallman as he failed to record another in the Hounds’ final 10 games of the regular season. Assists can be fickle things – just ask Reno 1868 FC’s Seth Casiple, who leads the league with 65 key passes this season but has only four assists – so Asante may have to be lucky as well as good to reach that landmark.

4. The player that Dallman was frequently laying on assists for in that 2013 Riverhounds SC season was Jose Angulo, and the veteran Colombian wrote his name into another club’s history book on Saturday evening on a memorable day for Hartford Athletic. After scoring the first goal in Highmark Stadium’s history back in 2013, Angulo became the first goalscorer at newly renovated Dillon Stadium as the Athletic opened its permanent home with a 2-1 victory against Indy Eleven in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 5,500 fans.

5. It was a win that didn’t come easily, especially throughout a first half in which the Eleven – who entered on a 10-game undefeated streak – held the upper hand. Indy created dangerous chances to take the lead early before Hartford properly settled into the contest, and even then the Athletic only registered five touches in the Eleven’s penalty area in the opening 45 minutes with all three of the home side’s shots for the half coming from outside the penalty area.

6. The halftime break, then, became a moment to regroup and take stock of the moment, which the Athletic did perfectly. Hartford recorded a 9-5 advantage in shots in the second half with Wojciech Wojcik notching his first goal for the club after Angulo’s opener. With the crowd buoyed by both finishes, even Ayoze’s late penalty for the visitors couldn’t dim the certainty that the Athletic would see the result over the line. “I think we were a little more brave and a little more creative, more dynamic to the attack in the second half,” said Hartford Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen. “We did it with speed, we didn't hesitate to find spark.”

7. Hartford, of course, is still going to have an uphill battle to reach the postseason sitting 10 points outside the playoff positions with 15 games to go in its inaugural season, but if there’s anyone they can take inspiration from it’s the team that now sits in the final playoff position. The Charlotte Independence continued their undefeated run under interim Head Coach Mike Jeffries with a 2-1 victory against Saint Louis FC on Saturday night for their fourth consecutive home victory and sixth consecutive game undefeated since Jeffries returned to the sidelines to move into 10th place in the East.

8. After the side’s struggles under previous Head Coach Jim McGuinness, the talk from the Independence’s longtime players like Enzo Martinez has focused on the familiarity that Jeffries brings and the return of the identity it created within the side. “We have a group of players who know how we play, and we’ve been playing together for a while,” Martinez told the Charlotte Post after Saturday’s win. “When Mike took over, we were given the opportunity to bring that, and kind of express ourselves again. It’s been good to get that identity back.”

9. The Independence are going to face a fight of their own to maintain their position in the postseason. While they overtook Saint Louis – which saw its struggles in form during a memorable run in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup continue – to sit two points ahead of the Missouri side on the right side of the playoff line, Charlotte has played 20 games already this season, four more than STLFC and the most of any side in the league to this point. That disparity has been exacerbated by postponed contests with STLFC having games still to be made up later in the season, but the pressure to continue this pace is going to remain on the Independence arguably up until the final days of the season.

10. I led off this week’s 18 with the winning streak Phoenix Rising FC has accumulated, but there are two other clubs further down the Western Conference who are making remarkable runs of their own. Let’s start with the only club currently keeping within touching distance of the conference leaders, Fresno FC, which defeated New Mexico United 2-1 for its fourth consecutive win on Saturday night thanks to Mickey Daly’s first goal for the Foxes.

11. The Foxes have now defeated three consecutive teams in the playoff positions in the Western Conference, with the victory against New Mexico following on from wins against El Paso Locomotive FC and Sacramento Republic FC. While Head Coach Adam Smith would have liked his side to have made more of its second-half chances to put the game away – according to Opta the Foxes registered 10 key passes for the contest – the fact that the chances were there left room for optimism that more is to come.

12. “What would be more concerning would be if we hadn’t created those chances in the first place,” said Smith. “Yes, we should’ve gone two more up and that would’ve been a completely different game. We had chances in the second half to make the score 3-1, 4-1, we don’t do it and then have to manage the game out. The fact is we still created those chances. There’s going to be a night when we’re going to end up putting four or five past a team. I don’t know when that is but maybe next week against Portland. That would be nice!”

13. Sitting with a five-game winning streak is Real Monarchs SLC, which has propelled itself into the middle of the playoff conversation over the past month after failing to find much consistency over the first three months of the campaign. In the middle of the Monarchs’ surge has been Douglas Martinez, who recorded the first hat trick in the club’s history on Friday night to lead a 5-0 victory against Tacoma Defiance that gave Real 16 goals over the course of its five victories. 

14. Martinez was one of our five finalists for the Championship’s Young Player of the Year award a couple of weeks ago, narrowly being edged out in the fan vote by the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Caleb Richards, but his performance since the start of June has only served to elevate his candidacy. Martinez has scored six goals and added three assists over the past four games, with his decisive finish on the third goal of the night his last act before being removed for a substitute with 13 minutes to go.

15. The Monarchs next head to face El Paso Locomotive FC in one of Week 20’s must-see matchups, especially since former Real standout Sebastian Velasquez could make his debut for Locomotive FC against his former club after his signing last week in El Paso. Real will do so without Martinez, however, who will be on duty for Honduras’ U-23 National Team as it squares off with Nicaragua for a place in the final stage of Concacaf Olympic Qualifying later this season. Hopefully his form for Real will carry over and help Los Catrachos to success this week.

16. Usually a hat trick would steal the show when it came to goalscoring achievements in a week’s action, but a day after Martinez put on a show for Real it was the turn of Chris Lema to go one better in the New York Red Bulls II’s 8-1 demolition of ATL UTD 2 that gave Head Coach John Wolyniec’s side a nice boost as the other clubs around them in the Eastern Conference playoff positions entering the weekend failed to take victories. Lema was backed by Jared Stroud, whose second consecutive two-goal game moved him to nine tallies for the season, but it was the ruthlessness with which the Red Bulls II dismantled its visitors to MSU Soccer Park that caught the attention. Three goals in 3 minutes, 33 seconds midway through the first half set the Red Bulls II on their way as Atlanta wilted under their consistent pressure.

17. For his part, Lema became the ninth player to record at least four goals in a USL Championship regular-season contest in the league’s history, and the first since North Carolina FC’s Donovan Ewolo last September in a 6-1 victory against – yes, you guessed it – ATL UTD 2. New York’s total of eight goals landed it one short of the Championship’s all-time record of nine goals in a single game registered by Reno 1868 FC against the LA Galaxy II two seasons ago, but it again exemplified the explosiveness the Red Bulls II have in attack against defenses that offer it any openings. New York has now registered four goals or more in a regular-season game 23 times since the start of the 2016 season, or once every five games.

18. “I think some of the momentum from the second half of the Bethlehem game kind of carried us through,” said Wolyniec, referring to his side’s impressive comeback last Wednesday night to win 4-3 against Bethlehem Steel FC. “It was a little hot today, so our guys came prepared to put an energy on, even on a hot day, so that was good to see. Some of it is the style of play, give credit to Atlanta that they tried to play through and, that kind of sets up well for us especially at home.” If you didn’t already, you should definitely have the Red Bulls II’s July 26 clash with Eastern Conference leader the Tampa Bay Rowdies at MSU Soccer Park circled on your calendar. 

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